Legends: Bernie Parent Has a Secret
After everything he’s been through, why is Bernie Parent so happy?
It’s a miserable day at the Schooner Island Marina, just over the bridge in Wildwood. A late-October nor’easter is rocking all of the boats docked here, with wet winds gusting and a constant, misting rain. There’s not an old sea dog to be found walking around in this mess, save for one on the top deck of a 45-footer dubbed The French Connection. The back door is open wide and decorated with a Philadelphia Flyers logo. Up the ladder, leaning back in a folding chair and puffing on a cigar, is Hall of Fame goaltender Bernard Marcel Parent. He’s wearing what he calls his “Hemingway look” — white cap, olive-green rain jacket, khakis, and docksiders with no socks. This boat is literally his home, and his lifestyle is almost Biblical in its solitude, its minimalism, and its communion with nature. The ship sways from side to side, and the skies hint that the worst is yet to come. All of this seems lost on Parent, for whom every forecast seems sunny. He’s shooting the bull with his business adviser, Dean Smith, and takes a moment to draw on his cigar, smiling through his well-groomed white beard. “Is this fucking living or what?”
Parent’s Old Man and the Sea look suits him well, save for two details — he appears about a decade younger than his 62 years, and most fishermen don’t wear diamond-studded rings. The one on his right hand represents his 1974 Stanley Cup championship; the left, his second, in 1975. With those victories, Parent ascended from the world of mortals to become a deity, as defined by popular bumper stickers that testified “Only The Lord Saves More Than Bernie Parent.” His God-like status still lingers — when his grinning mug was shown on the scoreboard during a Phillies playoff game this year, the ballpark erupted. Ask him about those rings — this seems true no matter what he’s talking about — and he’s prepared with a story.
“I was in New York six years ago, signing autographs,” Parent says, his English still colored with French. “This girl, 17 years old, has no clue who I am. She says, ‘Can I have an autograph for my brother?’ I said sure. She said, ‘Are those championship rings? This is great! They made ones for the parents, too!’” She had misunderstood the “PARENT” inscription on the rings. Parent lets out a chuckle.
“So I got up like a good Flyer and, one shot, dropped her.”
As his laughter echoes across the deck, there’s no hint of the hard times that came with the glory — a heartbreaking trade, a career-ending injury, alcoholism, divorce, and the death of a young Flyer he mentored. Through it all, he’s found a way to keep his glass perpetually half full. These days, Parent will tell anyone who’ll listen that his inspiration is The Secret, an Australian TV producer’s self-help book and DVD that has sold millions with its message that positive thinking can literally bend the cosmos to improve your life. “The universe is a mirror,” Bernie says. “Whatever you’re thinking, you’re getting back. If you’re constantly dealing with fear and sadness, that’s what you’re getting back.”
He wouldn’t be the first goalie accused of being kooky — you have to be a little cracked to stand in front of rock-hard pucks blasting at 100 miles per hour. “He’s a Frenchman and a goaltender,” says former Flyer teammate Bob Kelly. “So you know he’s wacky. [But] he’s gone through a lot.” And the truth is that the real secret to Bernie Parent’s wonderful life goes much deeper than advice from his favorite book.
AS PARENT CUTS into a ham-and-cheese omelet at the Palace Diner, not far from the Flyers’ practice rink in Voorhees, he explains how The Secret came into his life. Last year, his son, Bernie Jr., gave him the DVD, knowing he would love it: With testimonials from self-made millionaires, self-help gurus like the Chicken Soup for the Soul guy, and talking heads with titles like “philosopher” and “visionary,” the 90-minute docu-movie explains that the law of attraction is the key to life. With Oprah Winfrey’s seal of approval, The Secret became a cultural phenomenon, prompting the largest second printing in Simon & Schuster’s history. It also came under fire for being, at best, a brilliant bit of New Age marketing, and, much worse, for cultivating a dangerous “blame the victim” mentality — The Secret insists that if you think negatively, bad things will come to you. (Sick with cancer? Living in Darfur? It’s kinda your fault!) What spoke to Parent, though, was the reverse: Focus on what you want, believe you can have it, and you will. “It is you just placing your order with the universe,” “metaphysician” Joe Vitale says on the DVD. “It’s really that easy.”
As proof that life is a giant drive-thru window, Parent says he recently loaned his daughter $1,000, and the next day, he took a call for a business opportunity. What was he offered for his time? A thousand bucks, of course. Parent also voices radio ads for hair-replacement specialist Gregory Pistone. (“Hey Doc! Great save!”) Just as Parent was struggling with treatments for his own thinning hair, Pistone called him, unprompted, to be his spokesman. Nothing, Parent says, is coincidence. “I have this unwavering faith that everything works out. Whatever I’m asking for, it’s amazing what happens. But you have to pay attention. You have to live it.”
This sort of Disney-meets-Dr.-Phil mind-set has little place in ice hockey, which has long been the most working-class, no-nonsense professional sport, especially in Parent’s heyday. Men were men, on and off the ice, as evidenced by a snapshot of a young Parent with his goalie pads on, drinking a beer and smoking. Raised in Montreal, Parent and his six siblings were always a warm, affectionate bunch, and he brought that sunny attitude with him to Philadelphia when the Flyers drafted him in 1967. Parent was a solid but not outstanding goalie then, and he was traded to Toronto — a move that left him in tears, questioning his career. But in Canada, Parent was paired up with his idol, the legendary net-minder Jacques Plante. Every goalie has a system, and Plante perfected Parent’s, both physically and mentally: Stay square to the shooter. Cut off the angles. Visualize yourself making saves in every situation — two-on-ones, power plays, penalty shots. Parent eventually returned to Philadelphia as the NHL’s best goaltender, and would soon lead two parades down Broad Street.
With his wife, two young sons, a daughter on the way, and a lifetime contract with the Flyers, it seemed the stars really had aligned for him. Then, in February 1979, as a tussle in front of the goal crease sent a New York Ranger crashing to the ice, a stick swung into the right eyehole of Parent’s old-school Friday the 13th-style face mask. The trauma plunged him into darkness. That night, as he lay in bed at Pennsylvania Hospital, completely blind, wondering if he’d ever see again, he tried to stay upbeat. “This is what happens to old goalies, I guess,” he said. “You forget to duck.”
NO MOMENT IN a pro athlete’s career is tougher than the day he says goodbye to the game. Rock stars have it easy — Keith Richards can fill stadiums until his fingers won’t bend anymore, but in sports, as the body breaks down through injury or attrition, every athlete faces the time when the adrenaline and the cheers will disappear. Some, like wide receiver Jerry Rice, can’t let go, and linger a little too long. For others, it ends in one moment. Two weeks after the injury, Parent’s vision returned, but his right eye would never focus properly again. His goaltending days were over. Retirement? He hadn’t given it a thought. With a family to support and no backup plan for his life, he was terrified. All the structure he’d known — games, practice, the camaraderie of the locker room, his technique — was taken away. Parent was a goalie without a system, in hockey or outside of it.
Alcohol filled the void, and as Parent lost control of his drinking, his wife, Carol, gave him an Alcoholics Anonymous quiz with 24 questions. Answer three with a “yes,” and you’re probably in trouble. Parent answered 23 positively; “The 24th,” he says, “I lied about.” Parent put himself in AA, which he calls “The Program,” and 12 Steps replaced X’s and O’s as his game plan. “It made me realize that life has peaks and valleys,” he says. “I’m grateful that I’m an alcoholic. The accident, that took me to where I am today, one step at a time. And each step gets better and better.”
LIKE A RIBALD uncle who breaks up dreary parties with a funny story, Parent finds a shred of humor in the two weeks he spent hospitalized, sightless, wondering where his life was headed. “My glass was half full, although a few times when I was drinking, it was empty,” he says, picking at a slice of wheat toast at the South Jersey diner. “I had the nurses grab my nuts, and I had to guess the right name. One day my ex grabbed my nuts and I said the wrong name. That’s how the light came back!”
Parent gets serious when crediting “The Program” for his 27 years of sobriety, and for preparing him to handle the next slap shot the universe would send his way. Flyers chairman Ed Snider offered him a job as a goaltending coach, and his first star student was a young Swede named Pelle Lindbergh, who, like Parent, struggled before perfecting his technique. When Parent’s understudy won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie in 1985, TV cameras captured Lindbergh embracing the man he considered his second father. Five months later, Lindbergh lost control of his Porsche, slammed into the wall of a schoolhouse, and was killed. Parent delivered his eulogy during a ceremony at the Spectrum and flew to Sweden for the funeral. The memory of Lindbergh draws out more emotion than talk of Parent’s own hardships, but he finds a silver lining even in his student’s death. “With Pelle, I focus on the beautiful things,” Parent says, his right eye, which still bears a black mark from his injury, watering. “You could cry forever — nothing will happen. Be grateful to have been part of his life, and to have hugged him in front of 15 million people in Canada.”
Parent left coaching in 1993, and not long after that, his marriage ended. He couldn’t find solace by throwing himself into the business world — Parent didn’t have a Rolodex, couldn’t schmooze with people he didn’t already know. After hopping from one consulting job to the next — never, ever a full-time position; there’s fishing to do, eh! — Parent hooked up with Commerce Bank honcho and South Jersey political power baron George Norcross, who was planning to build a hockey arena in Pennsauken and recruited Parent to be the face of its minor-league team.
The arena deal fell through, but then the universe — or Norcross, if you’re not buying into The Secret — introduced Parent to Jack Tarditi, a Commerce Bank exec who would prove as valuable as Jacques Plante and Alcoholics Anonymous. Tarditi gave Parent a new system for the business game: Take notes. Keep track of all the people you know. When you walk into a room full of suits, they don’t expect you to talk about the Dow or foreign affairs — tell stories! Bernie could simply be himself.
For the first time since his days crouched between the pipes, Parent was in the zone again. Tarditi helped him steer clear of bad deals and make some much-needed money. Business was picking up, and his relationship with Carol and their kids was better than ever. Now he’s a spokesman for Trion Insurance, and at each Flyers home game, he tours the suites as a team ambassador, shaking hands and telling tales. “I was once a shy guy as far as the public was concerned,” he remembers. “Now, Christ, you have to throw me out, I have so much fun.” Then one day, while staring down at the bay from his Wildwood condo, Parent decided he needed to live on the water. So that’s what he did. Now, his fishing boat is docked facing his old condo, a constant reminder of the leap from having a dream to living it. “The water kept saying, Come on, come on!” he says. “That’s my passion. The Secret tells you to live your passion. It’s a beautiful thing!”
BACK ON BOARD The French Connection, Parent has a confession to make. It’s May 19, 1974, game six of his first Stanley Cup finals, and he’s nine seconds away from shutting out the Boston Bruins at the Spectrum. Nine seconds away from Philadelphia’s first hockey championship and his own immortality. There’s a face-off at the opposite end of the ice from Parent’s net, leaving Boston almost no hope of breaking the 1-0 shutout and forcing overtime — until the puck ends up on the stick of Bobby Orr, the Bruins’ fearsome sniper. Parent didn’t see Orr blast a shot the length of the rink, just wide of the Flyers goal, because Parent was staring up at the clock, watching time run out. “I didn’t know where the puck was, man!” he says. “If his shot is on net, it’s a goal. Who knows what happens then. Maybe we don’t win a championship. It just shows you how the universe works — you believe, you believe, you believe! The question is, is there a power that takes over? My answer is, absolutely yes!”
You won’t find memorabilia in the cabin of Parent’s boat; instead, what he carries with him from his playing days is that unshakable optimism. “As a goaltender,” says his daughter, Kim, “if you have one bad period, you have to shake it off or else you’ll lose the whole game. There were times when I could hear my dad’s voice when I was reading The Secret. The Stanley Cup was happiness, but now, it’s deeper. He’s at peace with himself.” But the book hasn’t transformed Parent; it simply connected the philosophical dots in his mind. The tough times, they’re all just a few bad goals. What made Parent one of the greatest goalies is what keeps him so happily afloat today — never letting one bad period ruin the whole game. “When I look back at my life,” he says, “without realizing it, I was living The Secret.”